HAITI | EARTHQUAKE AFTERMATH

3 Idahoans accused of child trafficking in Haiti are welcomed home

 

MCCLATCHY TRIBUNE

The party-like atmosphere at the Boise Airport was a cathartic culmination of 21 days of somber prayer and worry for Central Valley Baptist Church members - though they were welcoming just three of five fellow Baptists home from a Haiti jail.

Eric Thompson of Meridian said he planned to tell his wife, Carla, "I love you, welcome home." And though he had to wait longer than expected — the plane was delayed an hour until after midnight Friday morning — he greeted her with a hug that said it all.

"It's been very long, but it's very exciting tonight to get them home and see her tonight," Thompson said.

Their health is "great," according to Carla Thompson. They missed their families the most, Corinna Lankford said.

Those families and dozens of church members formed a tight circle around the women to protect them from reporters and onlookers. The women lingered over hugs and tears with family.

Church pastor Clint Henry said the moment was bittersweet, with the group's leader, Laura Silsby, and Boisean Charisa Coulter still in a Haiti jail.

"Our God is an awesome God, and He stood with us every second we were there," Thompson said. "I want you to continue to pray for Laura and Charisa's release. He's going to bring them home, too."

The long wait didn't seem to dampen the excitement in Boise. The crowd sang hymns in the airport lobby: "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art."

Thompson and the Lankfords were among 10 church volunteers who had traveled to Haiti in a hastily organized mission to rescue orphans. The Americans were arrested at the border of the Dominican Republic and accused of trying to bring 33 children into the country without the proper documents. Eight of the volunteers were released Wednesday; two more are still in custody in Port-au-Prince.

Four of the men on the trip - including three from Twin Falls - walked into a similar scene earlier Thursday at Kansas City International Airport in Missouri.

Topeka firefighter Drew Culberth couldn't stop smiling as he hoisted his youngest child up on his shoulders. His wife, Marta, and their three other children all stood touching him, as if they feared letting him go again.

The three other freed Idahoans - Culberth's brother-in-law Paul Thompson, nephew Silas Thompson and friend Steve McMullin - kept stepping back, looking in awe at their families and then at the gaggle of media. None of them spoke a word. They stayed in Kansas with Culberth and their attorney, Caleb Stegall.

Jim Allen, a Texan cousin of Paul Thompson, flew home as well, and was scheduled to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show Friday, which airs on KTVB at 4 p.m.

He was cheered Thursday as he entered Amarillo's civic center. Flanked by about 20 relatives as he stood on a small stage with his wife, Allen told those gathered that he went to Haiti on 48 hours notice believing his construction welding expertise would be needed.

"The reason I went was for the relief," he said. "And they still need your help."

The two Idahoans who remain in Haiti arrived at a Port-au-Prince courthouse on Thursday to be questioned by a judge about their plans to set up an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. But the judge rescheduled the appearance for Friday after an interpreter failed to show up.

The judge didn't dismiss child trafficking charges against the eight released Americans. But Stegall - a Kansas lawyer who began advocating for Culberth and the Twin Falls contingent midway through the detention - said he believes the volunteers' ordeal is behind them.

"I've been in regular contact with our Haitian legal team," he said. "They assure me that charges are or will soon be dismissed."

Haiti's No. 2 justice official, Claudy Gassent, said he talked to the Americans before their release and felt they understood they had made a mistake. "They know they broke the law," he said.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said he did not release Silsby, 40, or Coulter, 24, because the two had previously visited Haiti in December and planned even before the quake to open an orphanage. After the quake, Silsby rushed to pull together the rest of the group.

All the volunteers have denied the charges, and Haitian parents of some of the children have come forward to say they gave up their children in hopes they'd have a better life.

When they got to Kansas City on Thursday afternoon, the four men looked as if they'd just come home from a tiring camping trip. Each wore a backpack, with sunglasses and ball caps dangling from elastic cords.

In their left hands, all four men held Bibles. One passenger listening to the news conference whispered that he had watched them read their Bibles all the way from Atlanta.

In the crush of media Thursday, other passengers standing nearby whispered, "Who are they?" "We didn't know they were famous." "The pilots didn't announce it."

Stegall's hand was shaking as he held a statement to read. Stegall had taken on the case only five days earlier and had never met his clients in person.

He told the media that the four men were "deeply grateful to God" for their safe return, especially thanking their wives for bearing the burden of worry.

Stegall didn't want his clients speaking one word to anyone until he had "debriefed" them, discussing with them what to say and what not to say - largely because of the two volunteers still being held in Port-au-Prince.

He asked for privacy for the families, to "give them some breathing space," and then the families turned and left.

Hiram Sasser of the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas, which helped secure Allen's release, briefly described the conditions under which the 10 Americans were held. He said the men were held separately from the women.

"Jim had a hot meal a day, a roof over his head," Sasser said. "I'm sure he'd tell you he had it a lot better than a lot of people who are suffering in Haiti."

Jeff Mateer, also with Liberty Institute, said Allen would not discuss the case because it is pending and that it was unclear whether Allen would have to return to Haiti.

"We hope that never happens," he said.

The Associated Press and Lee Hill Kavanaugh contributed.

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